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Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Bounces Back From Big Steel’s Departure

Updated: Mar 30

The panoramic aerial view of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the Lehigh River. GETTY

When the old headquarters tower for Bethlehem Steel was demolished in May, many news stories portrayed it as just another piece in a long line of bad news for Pennsylvania industry. After all, it was the final chapter of a company that at one time was the second largest steel producer in the country, and an economic mainstay for the Bethlehem area.

But to the people there in the Lehigh Valley, which encompasses the cities of Bethlehem, Easton and Allentown, it was just a sensible next step in the revitalization of manufacturing in their region that’s been going on for many years.

The loss of that key industry was definitely tough for the area. “The Bethlehem Steel operation here locally closed in 1998,” said Don Cunningham, President and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), and former mayor of Bethlehem. (Bethlehem Steel’s coke works were the last part of the plant to close. The blast furnaces had shut down in 1995, and the combination mill in 1997.) “The site represents 25% of our taxable land mass. It’s the largest single-owner brownfield site in the U.S.”

That being said, Bethlehem Steel’s closure certainly wasn’t a knock-out punch for the Lehigh Valley. The region is the longtime home of other major manufacturers, including others in heavy industry. There’s Victaulic, the 100-year-old pipe connections solutions company headquartered in Easton (read their story here). There’s Mack Lehigh Valley Operations in Macungie (just outside Allentown), the cab and vehicle assembly plant for Mack Trucks, Inc. at which every one of their trucks for the North American market gets its start. (Allentown is also home to the Mack Trucks Historical Museum). And there’s the Curtiss-Wright Engineered Pump Division as well.

Unlike other rust belt regions that relied almost exclusively on heavy industry producers and are still reeling decades after their disappearance, the Bethlehem area was already diversifying before the loss of big steel. Manufacturers of numerous kinds have made it their home for many years – companies ranging from Crayola to guitar builders C.F. Martin & Co., Inc. to Just Born Quality Confections (makers of Peeps and Mike and Ike) to medical diagnostics, tools and services company OraSure Technologies, Inc.

OraSure Technologies in particular has been part of the area’s changes. The company was founded as SolarCare Incorporated in 1987, eight years before Bethlehem Steel closed its iconic flagship plant. Stephen Tang, OraSure’s CEO, arrived in the Lehigh Valley in 1982 as a graduate student at Lehigh University. “For more than 30 years I’ve observed the changes,” he said. “OraSure has played a big part in that – it’s a local success story. And the Lehigh Valley has gone through a renaissance of late.”

The folks at Just Born have seen it for a lot longer. “Just Born moved to Bethlehem during the Great Depression and thrived as a business despite the poor economic conditions occurring in the United States at the time,” said Matt Pye, the company’s Senior VP of Sales and Marketing. “There was plenty of labor thanks to Bethlehem Steel.”

Pye sees far greater advantages today. “The Greater Lehigh Valley is the fastest growing and 3rd largest metro area in the state of Pennsylvania after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” he explained. “Situated 90 minutes from NYC and 60 minutes from Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley is close enough to big city amenities with a much lower cost of living. Exceptional health care systems, higher education opportunities, arts, sports, entertainment and bustling downtowns of Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown make the Lehigh Valley a great place to work, live and play.”

Tang agreed. “The area is extremely strong in education and medicine,” he said. “We’ve got Lehigh University, which provides great support for our technical needs. And we’ve got two great healthcare systems, St. Luke’s and Lehigh Valley Health Network.”

For Cunningham, the area’s people are the key. “We have a cultural heritage of manufacturing here,” he said. “Families aren’t afraid to send their kids into manufacturing.” And he pointed to Lehigh University’s strong engineering programs as a feeder for higher-skilled workers as well. That ready base of talent has helped pull new companies in, whether a decade ago when Sam Adams took over the old Stroh’s brewery in Upper Macungie, or more recently when QVC, Walmart and Amazon all established large e-commerce centers.

“We’ve had an explosion of industrial growth the past five years,” said Cunningham. “In 2017 we went over $40 billion for our local GDP for the first time – the GDP is higher today than when we had steel. Manufacturing is now third largest for numbers of jobs, and second largest for output for Lehigh Valley. We’ve got 680 different manufacturers across two counties.”

He continues to look to the future, not to what once was. “We’ve got 33% of U.S. consumers within an eight hour truck drive,” he pointed out. “It’s all about managing our economic development – helping manufacturers come in with the right land development, and the right focus on facilities development.”

The former Bethlehem Steel location came with features that new users are already taking advantage of, including a rail terminal and other industrial buildings that have been preserved for re-use. New occupants have already established themselves, most notably including the SteelStacks arts, culture and entertainment campus, which hosts concerts, festivals, and educational events throughout the year.

Cunningham sees education as part of his ongoing work, of touting both the Lehigh Valley specifically and manufacturing in general. “People say about the U.S., ‘We don’t make anything anymore,’” he said. “We’re here to tell them, that just isn’t true.”

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